Interview with WAYNE HECTOR, songwriter for Susan Boyle, Pussycat Dolls, Westlife - Feb 1, 2010
“I came up with a couple of lines for the first verse and then phoned my mama’s house, left it on the answering machine, and said, ‘Don’t get rid of this!’”
With over thirty international number ones under his belt and a discography that includes artists as varied as Pussycat Dolls (UK & GER No.1, USA Top 3), Susan Boyle (USA & UK No.1), Def Leppard (USA & UK No.1), Donna Summer (USA & UK No.1), Il Divo (USA & UK No.1) and Rascal Flatts (USA No.1), songwriter Wayne Hector is clearly a master in the art of writing songs that hit a chord across the board.
The twice ASCAP and BMI award-winner talks to HitQuarters about the secret to writing the perfect Westlife song, how Susan Boyle reinterpreted his song about teenage-parent friction, and reveals how modern pop classics like ‘Flying Without Wings’ and ‘I Hate This Part’ first came to life.
As the writer of ‘Flying Without Wings’ and Susan Boyle’s ‘Proud’ you clearly know your way around a ballad - would you say you’re a specialist?
[laughs] As hard as I try not to be … It’s just one of those things that comes really naturally for me.
What is it that attracts you to ballads and where does all this emotion come from?
You say emotion, that’s what attracts me to ballads. It’s very hard to get an emotion out of an up-tempo. You can make them fun but you’re not going to cry over an up-tempo. And I suppose I’m still a soppy sod when it comes down it. Ten years married and I still feel quite soppy about my relationship with my wife - that helps.
That’s what makes a good ballad writer?
That’s it [laughs].
So if the emotion in your songs comes from your own character then what about your words - how much of yourself is in the lyrics you write? Are you able to listen back to a song and say, “That was about me,” or, “That was something that happened to a friend”?
I do spend a lot of time listening to people’s stories when we’re having dinners or going out with mates, and a friend will mention something and I’ll say, “That’ll be a nice angle for a song,” and I’ll write about it. But that’s occasional. I’m much more interested in trying to find a new way to say something. If you write ballads, they’re pretty much always about love, and the challenge is to find a new way to say it.
Going back to the start of your career, what do you think was key in finding your own musical vocabulary?
I think just exposure to all kinds of music. So, when I was growing up, I had a pretty wide influence, everything from rock to country to R&B to classical music. So, apart from that it’s down to the people you work with. As you get into the industry, some people get into a rock background, some work with pop artists first and that makes them a pop writer.
Was there a career-changing breakthrough that established your name as a songwriter?
It wasn’t the first things I had - because I had a few Top 10s first - but the first No.1 I had, which was a pop record with Peter Andre called ‘Flava’. All of a sudden everybody was knocking at the door. That was definitely the moment when I felt the change in how people perceived me as a writer.
As someone that has found success in different genres, do you find there’s any difference between the genres in the way a song is composed?
The process of writing the song is pretty much the same, with finding a great concept being paramount.
I think what’s different is the finish. If I do a country record, the final production part is going to be done completely differently to a pop record. Country guys get together, they have demo bands, and the bands will all sit in the studio and play it live, which is of course not how our pop industry works at all. And that gives it a completely different sound, because they’re all Nashville players who grew up there and have their own unique sound.
So you’ve not found it difficult adapting to working in American genres?
I know a lot of people that think it’s very different. I personally don’t. If you got a good concept and you listen to American music anyway then you’re almost in the same ballpark.
Of course, you’re never going to have the exact same melodies that they will have there, because they’ve grown up in a slightly different culture. But the reason why I’ve had a lot of success in the States is because everything I do is concept driven. There’s always an angle to it.
One of your more recent U.S. projects was with disco legend Donna Summer – how did that come about?
Her A&R people got in contact with me and said, “Would you like to work with Donna Summer?” That was a no-brainer for me. We’ve gone in the room, Lester [Mendez]’s played us some backing tracks, and Donna’s expressed how she wants to be perceived on this album, which wasn’t the old Donna Summer with the dance records. She had a different view on life and was willing to put that across.
You’ve also cut tracks for a variety blockbuster films. How different is it writing for a movie soundtrack?
The only difference really is that it’s much more directed by what the story is, such as the emotion that a character is going through. Often you write for a particular scene and you are guided by that.
How do your projects usually come about?
It’s a bit of a mixed bag. Sometimes my manager [Jackie Davidson] gets a call from other managers looking for songs for their act. Same with A&R people, sometimes I’ll have a song and Jackie will go from office to office going, “Have you got anybody for this song?” There’s also the times when people just don’t like your song [laughs].
One of your key collaborators is Steve Mac. How did you first come to work with one another?
Steve was a producer who was working out of Swanyard [Studios] in Islington. And somebody had recommended me for a vocal session, back in the days when I was doing backing vocals. And so I’ve gone down there and we’ve got on really well. And I said, “I’ve got this song that I’ve started called ‘Forever’. Would you like to get together and finish it off?” And I sent him a bit of the song and he really liked it. So, we got together and that was our first hit, and after that we’ve got together all the time.
How do you write your songs together? Is it a lyrics/music split or more intertwined than that?
It’s more intertwined than that. Sometimes I’ll come in with a melody and a lyrical idea. It was like that with ‘Flying Without Wings’. With ‘Beat Again’ Steve had part of a backing track.
We’ll do our parts but if I hear any musical ideas, I’ll send them to Steve, and he will send lyric ideas, and if they are good I’ll put them in.
Can you guide us through how ‘Flying Without Wings’ was written?
I was out in L.A. doing a hip-hop session with a producer called Ezi Cut, and I’d gone out for a break, and heard [sings] “I’m flying without wings …” in my head, and thought, “Well, that’s interesting!”
So, I came up with a couple of lines for the first verse and then phoned my mama’s house, left it on the answering machine, and said, “Don’t get rid of this!” And when I came back to England, I went into the studio with Steve and said, “Look, I’ve got to start with an idea. Have a listen …” He was like, “Oh this is great!” And then he and I just sat down and said, “What is this about?” And then we said, “Well, I think this is about our wives. This is about the things that make our lives complete.” And that was it. The song wrote itself. Then we finished all of the lyrics in like half an hour.
You say the idea for the song came to you during a break so do your inspirations often come when you’re not expecting them, like when you’re in the shower or on the train, or is it usually when you’re in the studio actually focused on writing?
Both really. Nowadays I write so much I don’t really have a lot of time outside of work and doing stuff at home with the family, but occasionally I’ll get an idea that will just pop into my head.
I was working with James Blunt a couple of weeks ago and had an idea and went in and we wrote a song around that. Most of the time though now it’s a case of sitting in the studio with somebody, vibing, having a bit of a laugh and not trying too hard. Something will come and then we’ll focus.
As you and Steve have written so many songs together for Westlife, how would you define the classic Westlife song? Hypothetically, if another songwriter was given the job of writing for the group then what their song need to do, and what should it not do?
If you want to write a song for Westlife, you’ve got to have a lyric that connects on a basic level. We’ve always thought the reason Westlife songs have been so successful is because it’s about situations that everybody goes through. We weren’t trying to be too clever about it, we were trying to be emotional. Try to find a subject that a lot of people can relate to instead of a few people and don’t be too cool.
‘Flying Without Wings’ is a song that has gone on to find further success with American Idol winner Ruben Studdard. When you are writing songs, rather than write specifically for an artist, are you thinking in the back of your head, we want this to be a ‘classic’ that can be performed by almost anyone?
Yeah, a lot of the time. As songwriters we find ourselves working for specific projects, but I’ve always found that actually the best songs that you get are the ones that you don’t write for anybody but yourself. Pussycat Dolls’ ‘I Hate This Part’ was like that. ‘Feels Like Today’, which Rascal Flatts ended up cutting, was like that. We just wrote the best song that we could write, and then found somebody who could do it justice.
Another song that has gone on to find further success is ‘Proud’. How did the song come to be recorded by Susan Boyle?
It’s a song Steve and I had done a while back. And he’s been in there and obviously pre-produced the entire Susan Boyle album. He went to see Simon [Cowell] (read the HitQuarters interview with Cowell here) and said, “Look, we’ve got this song”, which both of us were proud of and he played it to Simon, and Simon felt the same way …
When originally performed as part of Britannia High the song seemed to be about children dealing with parents that don’t understand them, but it has taken on a different meaning with Susan Boyle. What was the actual original inspiration for the song?
It was a particular thing we had to write for. The original inspiration was a teenager talking to his father. And we drew on the things that we felt about our own relationships with our dads when we were younger. I’ve got a good relationship with my dad now but, as is usual, when you’re a teenager and the whole world is against you … I mean, not everybody has a tense relationship, but both of us did.
Although, as you say, the song had a definite inspiration there was still room for it to be reinterpreted by Boyle. Would you say then that you deliberately write songs with a certain ambiguity to enable this and also so that listeners can find their own meaning?
I think so, but not every time. Some songs direct themselves and they have to make sense. But sometimes you find yourself in a lyrical trip where I think you could leave it a bit more open to interpretation.
Recently you wrote JLS’s hit debut single ‘Beat Again’, which was unusual for being a reality show winner debut that wasn’t a cover. Why was your song chosen and how did that come about?
I’ve obviously known about the boys from the show, and I knew they were getting a deal with Epic Records, so I went in and had a meeting with Nick [Raphael] (HQ interview), played him some other stuff, and then Steve had another meeting with Nick and played him that particular song. At which point he was like, “This is the single. I can feel it. It’s fantastic.”
And then I did ‘Everybody In Love’ with J.R. Rotem, and that was then going to be the first single, but at the last minute Nick changed his mind. That was probably the best thing that happened as I think ‘Beat Again’ was a great lead off single.
So that song was written especially for JLS?
How do you find it writing songs for artists like those produced by music reality shows that are completely brand new without a ready image in place?
It depends on what the brief is. If you’re allowed to do what you would naturally do then it can be great fun, but if you’re dictated to then it makes it a lot harder. It’s like anything else, if you go in to do something creative and somebody says, “Write the song, but don’t do this and don’t do that and don’t do this and don’t do that …” then all of a sudden you’re in a box, which is a lot harder to move around in.
We’ve not had a lot of trouble with it because the main people are Syco, and they’ve trusted us to do the songs for them.
When asked to write for an artist, would you be asked for a potential lead single ballad or an album track, for example, or are you always gunning for the hit single?
Album tracks are usually the songs that you find along the way to finding the single. Sometimes you have a writing session where you come up with something interesting - not something that you think that they’re going to play on the radio, but an original thought or musically maybe something that’s haunting or that makes you feel a certain way - and it’s not going to be a single, but will enrich the tapestry of an album.
How was Pussycat Dolls’ ‘I Hate This Part’ written?
We’d just finished a session and it was about 12 o’clock at night, and we were all packing up and ready to go home. I was standing by the keyboards, as I often do, just mucking around, and start playing [sings] “ding-ding-ding-ding-ding …”, a piano line, and being terrible at playing the piano, I turned and asked Jonas [Jeberg], “Can you play this in for us while I can remember it?” So, I sang him the line and he played it in, and then we thought, “This is pretty good.”
We didn’t have a lot of time the next day to do anything, so I was like, “Let’s just put a beat on it. I’m excited about it.” So, it started off as a ballad and then Lucas [Secon] said, “Let’s make it an up-tempo or a mid-tempo.” So, we changed the beat up, and there’s another song. In an hour we had written it and laid it out, and we were all really excited about it.
It’s one of those songs when you truly know everybody will love it. We sat outside in the car playing the CD for about an hour.
Can you offer some words of advice to unsigned songwriters with regard to publishing contracts?
Make sure that you get your songs back as quickly as you can. For any writer out there, I’d say take less money, and get your songs back, because to be honest, your catalogue is your future. When I signed my ever first deal, I did a lifetime copyright deal, as many people did back then. And some of those songs I’ll never get back.
Do you think contacting and sending demos to producers is a good tool for unsigned aspiring songwriters?
I think anything that can give you 2% more of a chance, is a good tool. And the real point I’m trying to make is I suppose, is that you do everything. There isn’t a particular thing you should be doing - you should be doing everything. You never know which one of those ways is going to be the one.
Which of your songs are you the most proud of?
I’ve got a couple of favourites. ‘Flying Without Wings’ has obviously got sentimental value for me, and I’ve always loved ‘I Hate This Part’.
What are you working on right now?
Still working with James Blunt, as well as Enrique Iglesias and Shayne Ward. Obviously I’m going back in for the next Susan Boyle and JLS albums.
Interview by Kimbel Bouwman
Next week: Interview with Beyoncé, Rihanna and Leona Lewis songwriter Evan 'Kidd' Bogart
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